Drop charges against Teesta Setalvad: Human Rights Watch

The organisation demands that the Government of India stop harassing activists for defending human rights

Free Teesta
Image Courtesy:hrw.org

Human Rights Watch (HRW) on June 28, 2022 demanded that Indian authorities immediately release human rights activist Teesta Setalvad, drop all charges against her, and stop their relentless attacks against activists.

The non-profit organisation condemned the Indian government for charging Setalvad and two former senior police officers (turned whistle-blowers) for criminal conspiracy and forgery while pursuing accountability for the 2002 Gujarat riots. Setalvad and Sreekumar were arrested on June 25. The journalist is further accused of filing false charges and fabricating false evidence with an intent to convict a person of a capital offense.

“These arrests are clearly reprisals for pursuing justice for Gujarat riot victims and attempting to hold those who were in power accountable. No one can deny that the violence occurred, or that there needs to be justice, and yet the authorities have been pursuing criminal charges against Setalvad for years now in an attempt to silence her,” said HRW South Asia Director Meenakshi Ganguly.

60-year-old Setalvad is well-known for her work in pursuing justice for the victims and survivors of the 2002 Gujarat violence. The activist sought an investigation into the role of senior state government and police officials in allowing the carnage to continue unabated leading to the massacre of over 1,000 people. Now, in wake of observations by the Supreme Court in the judgment dismissing the petition, the police have filed charges against former police officers Sanjiv Bhatt and R.B. Sreekumar, who spoke out about complicity by officials during the riots. While Sreekumar was arrested in 2022, Bhatt was convicted of murder in 2019 in an allegedly politically-motivated case dating back 30 years.

Based on submissions by activists including Setalvad, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) had strongly condemned the Gujarat government’s failure to deliver justice. The Supreme Court had also ordered new investigations, and directed the government to provide protection to witnesses and victims.

Regarding all this Ganguly said, “It was only because of efforts of activists like Setalvad who worked with victims and witnesses, that justice has been possible for mass violence in Gujarat. Setalvad’s arrest is part of escalating attacks on civil society and human rights activists in India, meant to send a chilling message to all who dare to seek accountability.”

A 2002 Human Rights Watch report on the riots had found that Gujarat authorities had failed to take adequate steps to end the violence, and interfered in investigations by targeting activists. In 2005, the US government denied Modi a diplomatic visa and revoked his existing 10-year business or tourist visa, citing violations of religious freedom.

But the Supreme Court, on June 24, dismissed the Zakia Jafri case where the widow of MP Ehsan Jafri challenged the SIT report that absolved top state government and police officials of role in the riots. Further, the judgement stated that the plea was filed “to keep the pot boiling … for ulterior design”. The court said that “all those involved in such abuse of process, need to be in the dock and proceeded with in accordance with law.” A day later, Home Affairs MinisterAmit Shah lashed out at Setalvad by saying that she and her organisation had “given baseless information about the riots to the police.”

While being taken away by the police on Saturday, Setalvad submitted a handwritten complaint to the Santacruz Police Station, saying, “I seriously fear for my life given the animosity of the Gujarat state police.”

HRW notes that the Gujarat authorities have been hounding Setalvad for nearly two decades, filing a slew of false charges (many remain pending) and misusing the criminal justice system. At times like in 2004, the Supreme Court rejected an allegation that she coerced a witness to give false evidence. Similarly, in February 2012, the Supreme Court looked into a case that accused her of illegally exhuming bodies of riot victims and it was a “100 percent spurious case to victimize” her and that such a case “does no credit to the state of Gujarat in any way.”

The HRW said it documented the stalled efforts to investigate and prosecute cases of riots in Gujarat and found that activists and lawyers involved were harassed and intimidated.

“It has taken repeated interventions by the Supreme Court following appeals by activists and victims’ families to order re-investigations, oversee independent inquiries in some cases, or shift trials out of Gujarat to ensure progress toward justice. Over 100 people have been convicted in these cases, although many have been released pending appeal,” said the HRW.

Aside from the HRW, Setalvad’s arrest has prompted mass protest from political parties, media associations, and human rights groups alike. United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor expressed deep concern over the arrest and said, “Defending human rights is not a crime. I call for her release and an end to persecution by the Indian state.”

Similarly, the Working Group of Human Rights in India and the United Nations (WGHR), Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI), New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI) and the International Union of Left Publishers also voiced solidarity with the veteran activist. This is aside from the overwhelming protests across India in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Varanasi, Bengaluru, Jaipur, Ranchi, Ajmer, Ahmedabad, Bhopal, Lucknow, Allahabad, Chandigarh, Chennai, Dhulia, Raipur and many other cities. Setalvad and Sreekumar will be brought before the magistrate for hearing on July 2.


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